Deadline Express 5

Howdy, amigo!  

Buy The Book

We’ve been talking quite a bit about who your character is, and by now you’ve either come up with a great concept, or at least are toying around with a few.  So let’s take a little bit of time to kick around some thoughts on who your people are.


The Weird West isn’t a unified nation with gradients of civilization as you move west; it’s a fractured jigsaw of nations, territories, and independent fiefdoms.  It’s likely your character is part of one of these groups, by birth or by choice.  Even if your character holds themselves independent of any of the larger groups, it’s still likely they’ll have an opinion or two about the major political players in the region.  So let’s run through some of them, shall we?



The good ol’ U-S-of-A, although, not so good these days.  With the Civil War still grinding on relentlessly and the government feeling the pressure from the Reckoning, the United States has had to place the entire nation under martial law, bringing the advancement of civil liberty in the exact opposite direction than was originally intended!  While the CSA may hold many advantages, the Union enjoys a greater degree of industry, which in turn translates directly into an arms advantage when it comes to ghost-rock powered war machines.  Although their resolve was strong when the war began, the abolition of slavery even in the south has led some to opine that the war may no longer be necessary.  As the war slogs on, its crushing influence touches every facet of US society, and many wonder how long the Union can maintain the will to fight.



The CSA has already far outlasted its real-world counterpart.  Partly through the influence of the Reckoning, and partly through shrewd foreign recognition, the Confederacy is standing on its own, however shakily.  While the war is still the predominant influence on Confederate society, in the CSA it’s a much more tangible influence, since the majority of fighting has occurred south of the Mason-Dixon line.  With many of the political structures newer than the ones in the North, political corruption is a bit more open (after all, there are fewer centuries-old institutions for it to hide behind!) but no less common.  

Click to Buy the Book
Click to Buy the Book

Sioux Nations

The return of the spirits has heralded a second wind in the Indian Wars.  Although the magics of the natives are no more potent than those wielded by white hucksters or blessed, the Indian nations boast a much higher percentage of those with an Arcane Background.  Further, the shamans have a far stronger unity of purpose, giving them a greater edge when dealing with white forces.  This unity has allowed the Sioux to carve out a sizeable territory that they can claim as their own.  This strength, coupled with the ongoing war, has forced the Union to deal with the Sioux Nations as a legitimate entity, ceding their right to administer their own lands.  This has caused a great deal of friction with the predominantly white mining town of Deadwood, but so far the two groups have managed not to kill one another. Internal tensions are extremely high, however, and likely to remain so.

Book Linked
Book Linked

Coyote Confederacy

Not to be left out, several tribes in the southwest have banded together to form their own nation, smaller in size but not necessarily in influence to the Sioux Nations.  Occupying most of Oklahoma, the Coyote Confederacy doesn’t have the problem of white settlers on their borders.  Instead, they contend with some vigorous politicking from within their own ranks, as well as a number of external threats, including the nearby experimental science bases of both the USA and CSA as well as the numerous conflicts that threaten to spill over from the disputed lands to the north.



When the Mormon church established their own community in Salt Lake and proclaimed themselves a free and independent nation, many were outraged.  Although Brigham Young has publicly stated that Deseret will rejoin the Union once the Civil War has ended, many consider them to be no better than secessionists. The animosity at their unusual religious practices which drove them westward hasn’t died down.  Only the fact that Salt Lake City boasts two of the three premier institutions for mad science, Hellstromme Industries and Smith & Robards, gives them enough of an edge to survive in the Weird West.  Although the tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons threaten at times to spill over into outright violence, the tiny city-state continues to hold its own, for the time being.


Lost Angels

In the shattered remains of the California coastline, food and water are incredibly scarce.  The few places they are available are natural hubs for human activity, but even in these communities there is rarely enough to go around.  Fortunately, the largest of these communities has a beneficiary: the good Reverend Grimme, who is more than willing to provide for the sustenance of the members of his church, so long as they obey his edicts and help prop up the theocracy he’s running out there.  Both the USA and CSA would love to see him destroyed, but so long as the church continues to buy the loyalty of the populace with free meals (complete with lots of nice, fresh meat) they have an uphill battle.



Of course, that’s not taking into account the vast swathes of territory not under a single national jurisdiction, or the dozens of tiny fiefdoms that have popped up and answer to a single local authority.  Of course, nowhere is safe from the horrors of the Reckoning.  Really, all that changes is the faces of the bad guys and the shapes of the monsters.
Until next time, amigo!


Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the Ravenloft Corner column at High Level Games, his mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him @jcstearnswriter on Twitter.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Deadline Express – Issue 4

Howdy, amigos!  Last month we talked about diversity and inclusion, so let’s talk about something a little lighter this month.  The world of Deadlands mirrors our own to a great degree, so you can choose to play any sort of figure you can think of from the western genre, from the hard-bitten cowhand to the grizzled bounty hunter, the soiled dove, to the native scout.  What Deadlands has that the real world lacks (and most other Western settings lack) is a panoply of supernatural origins for your character to choose from, if you wish.



Now, you’ll have to spend some of your hard-earned building points (and later, bounty points) to shore up your supernatural mojo, but if you’re willing to sacrifice some of your skill points now, it can pay great dividends later on!  Let’s take a look at some of the different supernatural types you can be.



Harrowed make the list early because it’s a potential everyone has!  If you croak in the Weird West, there is always a small chance you’ll return from the dead with a manitou riding around in your skull, animating your rotting hide for the rest of eternity.  Although this particular career option comes with a great deal of power, including resistance to fear and injury, improved healing, and a bevy of supernatural powers related to the grave, it also comes with a huge downside: the demonic passenger you carry poses a constant danger to everyone around you, and it’s only a matter of time until it lashes out at someone you care about.



In Deadlands, a European wizard long ago learned the secrets of conjuring manitous to compel them to perform services in the form of magical spells. To keep himself and his students safe, he created and taught methods of controlling these fiendish spirits through mental battles envisioned as games of skill.  Eventually he settled on cards as the most efficient method, and encoded his teachings in a book: Hoyle’s Book of Games (1st Edition only).  Practitioners of this art decode the mysterious secrets in Hoyle’s teachings to cast arcane spells (known as hexes).


Mechanically, the player draws a number of playing cards, and the quality of the poker hand they are able to form from them determines the quality of the hex.  Although they tend to be risk-takers (they are, after all, quite literally gambling with their lives every time they cast a hex) these spell slingers are one of the most iconic parts of the setting.



When the floodgates of the Reckoning opened, it wasn’t just the practitioners of dark magic who saw their power wax.  Holy men and women of all manner of faiths suddenly found their gods much more receptive to their supplications, and the mystical power of myth suddenly at their fingertips once more.


The books contain rules for Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon blessed, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian practitioners as well. Although they do have a code of conduct they are expected to live by (and may risk loss of their powers if they violate it), Blessed have fewer skills and attributes which their powers are dependent on, allowing them to be more focused in their character building.


Mad Scientist

If you love steampunk style and have dreams of Gatling gun vengeance, then mad science may be in your future!  The discovery of the mineral known as ghost rock has led to a wellspring of ‘New Science,’ the catchall term for the bizarre and terrify experiments now running amok through the Weird West.  Although mad science requires a fair amount of resources and a posse willing to accommodate the downtime you’ll need, the only limit to what you can build is your imagination; from lightning guns to rocket trains. The best part is that you don’t even need to hide what you do–this isn’t magic, after all, it’s science!



The Blessed weren’t the only people who got their mojo back after the Great Quake.  The Native American tribes that thought spirits had long since gone quiet found their own rituals garnering tangible reactions from the beings they entreated.  The Shaman can call on the spirits to do their bidding, wielding powers that other magics pale in comparison.


Shamanic favors are potent, some more powerful even than the miracles of the Blessed or the hexes of the Hucksters.  However, to harness this magic you must first entreat the spirits with rituals, which can take anywhere from a couple of actions to several days! Still, when the spirits answer, you can empower your warriors, raise the dead, or have the very earth itself obey your command.


But that’s not all!  Although these are the primary Arcane Backgrounds you can take, there are a few others, which aren’t always appropriate for every campaign, but might fit in extremely well depending on your location.

The Great Maze

Martial Artist

Out in the Great Maze, an unprecedented number of immigrants from the East have come to seek their own version of the American Dream.  The notion of tyrannical rule through force of arms is not new to them, and some of them have learned ways to defend themselves even when unarmed.  Some of them have even learned to tap their own spiritual essence to achieve feats which could be called magical by the unenlightened.  If you are playing in the Great Maze, or anywhere the warlord Kang’s Iron Dragon railroad is located, a Martial Artist can give you a character with one foot in the supernatural side of the line and the other firmly planted in butt kickin’ town.



With one of the six major players in the Great Rail Wars firmly rooted in New Orleans, it’s only natural that a little bit of voodoo comes into play somehow!  Far from a unified front, the practitioners of this unique religion have (like so many others) found the voices of their own spirits, the loa, easier to hear since the Reckoning.  Although they primarily fight amongst themselves, as Bayou Vermillion’s dark influence spreads westward, so does the stories of the hexes and conjures his men employ, as well as the magic of the voodoo adherents who oppose his black magic.  If you’re playing in the Deep South, or anywhere Bayou Vermillion has great influence (for good or for ill), then a voodoo practitioner can provide a character somewhere between a Shaman and a Blessed.



In the southern part of the Maze, Reverend Grimme sits on his throne as the king of his starving domain of Lost Angels.  With the means to control both food and water for his population, he has also muscled his way into controlling the flow of Ghost Rock in his area, and intends to hold his power as long as possible.  But a few people oppose him, living in his metropolis in secret.  The Mestizos are an obscure religious group, their faith a curious mix of Catholicism and native beliefs.  If you want to play a member of a persecuted religious minority using their powers in service of resistance to the rule of a tyrant, then this is your stop, amigo!  Just make sure your Marshal’s okay with it–the Mestizo doesn’t really fit in very well outside of Lost Angels.


Blood Magic

The vile, inbred Whately clan has more than a few secrets, but none more potent than this, their mastery of a form of sorcery called Blood Magic.  Blood Magicians can call down unique curses utilizing the power of their own blood, which is infused with fiendish energy from centuries-old pacts with dark powers.  Unfortunately, Blood Magic is unique to the Whately family–you can’t learn it without the Whately Blood edge, which carries with it the risk of insanity and deformity, as well as a familial connection to one of the most insidious packs of villains in the setting.


Pick and Choose

Although there are a few Arcane Backgrounds that aren’t compatible, a great number of them are!  There’s nothing stopping your Shaman from learning the way of the Martial Artist, for instance.  Many’s the hero who walks one of these paths and ends up Harrowed before their story is finished.  A few don’t work together, (a Shaman couldn’t become a Catholic Blessed, for example, nor a Mad Scientist) but as long as you clear them with your Marshal, you should be able to spread yourself as thin as you like.  You won’t achieve the total mastery of someone who focused in their chosen field, but the panoply of tricks you’ll have up your sleeve will make even the most veteran hero jealous!


There are a few dozen sourcebooks for Deadlands classic, so if I missed your favorite Arcane Background, I apologize!  Feel free to shoot me a scathing message telling me where the hog ate the cabbage, amigo.  Until next time!


Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the Ravenloft Corner column at High Level Games, he writes for the Black Library. His mad scribblings can also frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him @jcstearnswriter on Twitter.

Deadline Express 3- Diversity in the Weird West

Howdy partner!


Last time we spoke, we talked a little about some of the rules mechanics that are unique to Deadlands.  This time I thought we’d talk about something a little less crunchy but no less important: diversity.


Diversity is an important consideration in the gaming hobby.  In the context of a historical (or alternative history) roleplaying game, diversity is an especially important topic.  Fantasy systems can always be tweaked or altered to allow more stage time for groups of people that don’t feel like they’re being represented in the setting, but historical settings can be understandably off-putting for people who would be oppressed or second-class citizens within that setting.


Deadlands is especially sensitive to this, probably because it has to be.  It’s set in a historical period when cisgendered heterosexual white male protestants hold all the cards.  In real history, it was a time when racist and sexist oppression was at an all-time high, and when LGBTQIA individuals didn’t even dare to speak out. Fortunately, the game goes a long way to making gamers of all types feel that their personal identifiers are welcome at the table and in the setting.



Deadlands is set in a world where the Civil War is still raging.  (Okay, more grinding on in an oppressive stalemate than raging.) I’m sure the big question on your mind is ‘what about the hot, spicy racism?’ and gratefully, Deadlands does a lot to avoid it.


In the world of Deadlands, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, the government of the Confederacy decides to free their slaves as well.  The logic being: economic freedom from the Union, with reduced production, is better than suffering military defeat. They abolish the practice on their own in order to bolster the ranks of their own troops and encourage Northern abolitionists to stop supporting the war effort.  (As a side note, the figure who gets this accomplished in Deadlands actually did suggest this in real life, as I understand, so this isn’t just plucked from thin air.)


Racism isn’t just against black people, though, I hear you say.  And you’re right.  There is a huge Chinese immigrant population and influence in the Maze, with immigrant figures holding a bit more influence than they may have in real life.  In the west coastal region, Chinese heroes can operate on the same footing as white heroes.


Near the southern border, there are a number of calamities.  Mexico is under French occupation and threatened by the undead, so there is a little less tension between northern gringos and natives than there would be otherwise.  (The French occupation is also based on a historical takeover that failed–it just happened to have succeeded in Deadlands.)


The bottom line is that the Reckoning (the return of the supernatural to the world) has made the things that go bump in the night, as well as their greater influence, like the War, a larger conflict than interracial tensions, allowing marshals and players to discard racial conflicts that don’t serve their stories.



Much like issues of race, the omnipresence of the Civil War and the dangers of the Reckoning have made many gender inequality issues moot.  Back east, there is still a divide, but even that’s reduced.  One of the six great rail barons is a woman, as well as being one of the most successful industrialists in the setting.  From Granny Smith (an arms manufacturer for the Mormon state) to Katie Karl (one of the leaders of the Texas Rangers), there are women in power prominently placed throughout the setting.  Even one of the template characters is a female sheriff, so the game clearly encourages a greater degree of gender parity than was actually present in in 1877.


Native Americans

Of all the marginalized groups, Native Americans probably have the strongest position in Deadlands.  The Reckoning occurs before the end of the Indian Wars, and the continuation of the Civil War (diverting the resources of the USA and CSA away from the west) as well as the return of tribal magics level the playing field tremendously.  Not one, but two coalitions of Native Americans have managed to carve out independent territories for themselves in Deadlands.  Far from being oppressed and relegated to reservations, the tribal coalitions are an independent force to be reckoned with, and potent allies in the struggle against the forces of evil.



There aren’t as many gay and trans characters in the setting as one might like, it’s true.  However, the same point that gets hammered over and over, that the conflicts with other national groups and the fight against the monsters are more important than squabbles within our own communities, is one that could be realistically applied to the LGBTQIA community as well.  You could easily slide a gay character into a game without breaking any suspension of disbelief.  When you’re in the trenches, being shot at with gatling guns, or fighting off vampires, you don’t care about the sexual preference of the person next to you; only that they have your back.



The fact that all religions can call on divine abilities to protect the innocent from the depredations of the wicked goes a long way to make them more accepted.  Although protestant Christians remain the dominant religion, the fact that Catholics can also call down real, honest miracles does a great deal to lessen tensions.  Those are far from the only options, of course: Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism are all given positions of respect and prestige.



Of course, discrimination still exists.  The level of discrimination in your game, however, should be something that marshal and player are comfortable with.  To that end, your Edges and Hindrances are big hints as to your preferences.  If you play a Chinese character but don’t take the Ferner Hindrance, you’re sending a big signal to your marshal that you’re not interested in doing stories about racial prejudice.  If you play a female character with the Law Man or Rank edge, you tell your marshal that you’re interested in being in a position of authority, not being treated like a delicate belle. It’s an extra level of communication both parties should be conscious of. *Editor Note, we encourage having some frank, straightforward conversations about these elements with players prior to introducing them. Take subtle clues, but don’t be afraid to ask directly.



If you’re a cisgendered heterosexual white male protestant, it can sometimes be easy to overlook a lack of diversity in games.  Especially in historic games, where it’s tempting to resist doing a little extra work for the sake of inclusion by using ‘that’s how it was back then’ as a shield.


Gaming has done a lot to shed the image of the community as nothing but a bunch of socially awkward white male nerds.  Our community includes men and women, nerds and athletes, people of color, all nationalities, faiths, and positions on the gender spectrum.  It’s important that we make our games as welcoming as our communities should be.  Fortunately for us, Deadlands gives us the tools and the setting to make what might otherwise be an awkward situation comfortable and inclusive for everyone.


Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the Ravenloft Corner column at High Level Games, his mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him @jcstearnswriter on Twitter.



Last time we spoke, we covered some of the general reasons Deadlands is such a marvelous game and setting.  Now we’re going to get down to the gritty specifics: a quick tutorial on how Deadlands works, and the things that set Deadlands apart.  Since we’re still waiting for the release of the 20th anniversary edition, it’ll help to get some people up to speed on mechanics they might not be familiar with, or give a small refresher to cowpokes who’ve been away a bit.



Dice Pools

All your dice pools will be expressed as XdY.  X is the number of dice you roll, Y is the die type.  With two notable exceptions, you only take the highest die, although dice ‘explode’ in Deadlands. (Meaning if you get the maximum value, say a ‘6’ on a d6, you roll that die again and add six the new roll, potentially exploding again.) If the majority (over half) of your dice come up 1’s, you Go Bust, or fail catastrophically.



You have two types of attributes in Deadlands.  The first is your traits, akin to your basic ability scores in D&D.  Each will be expressed like a die pool as above, and when you roll a raw trait score, that’s what you’ll roll. Humans have an upper limit of a d12 for trait scores, although the first number (the coordination value) theoretically has no upper limit.


You also have aptitudes.  Each aptitude is attached to a trait, and will use the die type of the attached trait, while rolling a number of dice depending on the aptitude level.  Aptitudes theoretically have no upper limit.


Fate Chips

The first mechanic Deadlands uses that might be new to you is fate chips, usually represented in most groups by colored poker chips. These chips come in limited quantities, with fifty of the least valuable white chips available, and only ten of the high value blue chips available. The most valuable, the legend chip, is only introduced after it is earned by performing particularly noteworthy deeds.


What are they for? First of all, their most frequent use is to negate combat damage. They allow you to ignore wounds or recover lost hit points (called wind), with the higher value chips providing greater protection.  They also allow dice manipulation, with the smallest chips allowing you to roll an extra die, and the largest chips allowing you to reroll entire dice pools! There are a few rare supernatural powers that require the expenditure of fate chips, but their most coveted use is for bounty points.  Fate chips can be cashed in for bounty, and these points used to purchase permanent character advancement.  (The only way to do so.) Therefore, each fate chip expenditure becomes a risk: how badly do you need to succeed on that roll? Can you afford to take a little damage now so you’ll be able to buy up that aptitude score? It’s a careful balancing act, and one you’ll have to set the guidelines for yourself.


How do you earn them? Well, everyone gets thrown a bone at the beginning of a game session, and gets to draw three.  You’ll also earn them for discovering clues, defeating bad guys, and progressing the story.  However, the easiest way to earn them is with your hindrances.  (Character flaws similar to Quirks/Drawbacks/Flaws in other systems.)



Standard decks of 54 playing cards (jokers included) are used for character generation (they replace die rolls to determine stats), combat initiative, and to determine the outcome of certain supernatural effects.


Like WoD, Twilight 2013, or Mayhem, Deadlands allows multiple actions per combat turn, which allows players who like ‘fast’ characters to actually see an advantage over one-woman, one-action systems. Having been dealt a varying number of cards based on an ability roll, initiative will count down from highest to lowest (suits are ordered to break ties).  In an interesting twist, characters with the Leadership aptitude can ‘swap’ cards between willing players, making Deadlands one of the few game systems to make group command skills useful.



Deadlands allows players to purchase a series of advantages (Edges) with building points, and to earn extra points with disadvantages (Hindrances). While many of these edges are nifty (the Arcane Background edge is the only way to access certain supernatural powers, and in my opinion every first time player should buy both the Nerves o’ Steel and Brave edges), the real meat of this system lies in its hindrances.


Like every such system, you can choose to buy hindrances that will have minimal impact on you, or even help you in some way.  However, if you do, you’ve already received all the benefit you’ll get from those hindrances.  You see, the easiest way to earn fate chips is by getting screwed by your hindrances: minor inconveniences earn you small fate chips, but ones that put you in life threatening danger net you huge rewards.  (Note that this occurs not when a hindrance comes into play, but when it actually impacts you in a negative way. If you have the Ferner hindrance, and someone makes an unkind comment which you respond to with a witty retort that causes everyone to laugh at them, you get nothing.  If you get jeered out of a bar because of your accent, you should be compensated with a fate chip.) Therefore, it actually behooves you to take hindrances that will bite you in the keister on a regular basis.



Unlike World of Darkness and Twilight 2013 with their wound systems, or D&D and Pendragon with their hit point systems, Deadlands has both.  This might seem a little complicated at first, but it’s actually both intuitive and simple.


Wind (hit points) represents minor damage like dings and scrapes, plus trauma and fatigue.  Loss of wind will break you, sending you into blissful unconsciousness or curling up into a ball.  Wind recovers fairly easily.


Wounds are another story.  They are divided up by hit location, and their loss will result in the impairment or loss of the associated limb, or death in the case of heads and torsos. Wounds take a significant amount of time to heal, so it’s best to bring someone with some supernatural healing capacity, although mundane healing is also possible in a significant way through the Medicine skill.



There are lots of fiddly, specific mechanics that will only matter to you depending on your character, but these are the big ones.  Once you’ve given them a chance, you’ll find the signature mechanics that make Deadlands pop not only emphasize the western theme, but add some tools that are typically missing from the RPG repertoire.


Until next time, amigos.


Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the bi-weekly Ravenloft Corner at High Level Games, his mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal.

Images are the Properties of Pinnacle and are used under Fair Use. We love Deadlands, and want to support them. Go and buy their books.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.


In 2001, I saw a book on the discounted shelf of my local game store, and stopped dead in my tracks.  There before me was the single best cover art I’d ever seen (true then, true now). An undead cowboy menaced viewers from the cover, one revolver held casually aloft, his coat draped open to reveal a panoply of lawmens’ badges, all drilled through with a bullet hole.  I did the most cursory flip through before purchasing it immediately.  I devoured the whole book in a single sitting, and was so enamored with the setting and system I didn’t even mind when I realized I’d purchased the first printing and had to go back and buy the second edition. What game was this? Deadlands.



Since then, Deadlands has been my go-to game.  I’m up to run it anytime, for anyone.  The books occupy the largest section of my RPG library, and it’s always the first suggestion I have when people ask me what new game system they should get into.  Although the game successfully transferred to the Savage Worlds system in 2006, I continued with the classic system. (It’s reasonably easy to do an approximate conversion between the two.) The game has continued with both plot continuity and developer continuity since its inception, and you will never find a more responsive and communicative developer than Shane Hensley.


With the 20th anniversary of the original release, I was thrilled to hear the announcement that Deadlands Classic would be given a re-release, with glorious new color artwork, in tandem with their latest plot point campaign book. My hope was that this might create a little more interest in the classic system for the game.  When Keep on the Heathlands told me I could write a regular segment, my first choice was a no-brainer.


If you’re not familiar with the setting, if you need a refresher, or if you’re trying to explain it to someone new, here’s the bare minimum you need to know:

It’s an alternative history game, but the history is largely our own.

200px-deadlandsThe game was set in 1876 when it was first released.  Various releases have advanced the timeline over the years, to 1882 in the most recent version. Until 1863, the history of Deadlands is, for all functional purposes, the same as that of the real world. So there’s less than two decades of ‘alternate’ history to worry about.


All the changes stem from a single event: in 1863, a supernatural cataclysm rocked the world.  The release of otherworldly power caused a titanic earthquake (shattering the coast of California) and releasing arcane forces back into the world which had been bottled up since the back half of the dark ages.



That’s right, magic is real.

Since the Reckoning (the events of July 4, 1863) magic and myth have returned to reality.  Dead men do not always stay dead. Monsters of legend have begun to creep out of the shadows, some newly spawned, and some merely coming out after centuries of hiding. Ancient books of sorcery, encoded into books of card games, have regained frightening power, which are now wielded by keen minded cardsharps. The forces of good have risen as well: the truly faithful among the world’s religions now find they can call down the power of their faith to protect themselves and mankind. Native American mystics can call upon their spirits in ways both tangible and terrifying. Arcane minerals unearthed during the earthquake have given rise to bizarre steampunk science, most of which fuels the ongoing Civil War.


History is still being made.

The largest plots in Deadlands are based on real history.  The Civil War grinds on in a gruesome stalemate.  Westward expansion, driven by the discovery of gold and ghost rock (the mineral which makes mad science possible), continues to shape current events. The transcontinental railroad continues construction, with even farther-reaching and bloodier conflicts than ever transpired in reality.  The Indian Wars continue as well; the magic’s of the Reckoning have leveled the playing field a great deal. The events that shaped the real American West continue to play out, augmented by a world where the dead rise and the shadowy forces behind the scenes seem to seek out the ugliest and barbaric course for history to follow, as though by malevolent design.


It’s a true western.

The system has been designed beautifully to maintain a true western feel.  Shootouts, staredowns, and quickdraws mesh seamlessly into gameplay. Characters are easy to create and advance, and are task-effective from character generation, while still maintaining plenty of room to grow. There’s none of the clawing your way through mediocrity at first level you see in some game systems, and very little of the deific power at higher levels that tends to accompany such systems.  Characters are always useful, but at the same time will always be challenged. Perhaps best of all, there’s a strong emphasis on flawed characters.  Like all the best western protagonists from William Munny to Cullen Bohannon, you’re not only allowed, but encouraged, to create characters who are seriously flawed yet still capable of seeing the larger threats that have begun to menace humanity.


Your options are limitless.

In a true historical setting, there are a great number of restrictions on characters based on race, nationality, gender, and the like.  Deadlands has been written with this in mind, the changes in the social setting remove or ease these roadblocks to allow the largest amount of diversity possible.  Players who might not otherwise feel welcome in a western setting can still enjoy Deadlands without feeling like the GM is jumping through hoops to accommodate them. (More on this next time!)


Did you miss out on the Kickstarter for the 20th Anniversary release of the classic rules?  That’s okay!  There was a merchant option pledge tier available, so you’ll likely still be able to get a copy of the anniversary edition for some time.  Even if you can’t track one down, it remains available from Pinnacle in PDF format.


Keep your eyes peeled here, as well.  As long as Shane and the gang continue to bring us gunslingin’ western action, I’ll be here to toss my own drop in the bucket, as well as try to catch newcomers up to speed or even provide some alternative viewpoints for veteran saddle tramps.




Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the bi-weekly Ravenloft Corner at High Level Games, his mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal.

Images are the Properties of Pinnacle and are used under Fair Use. We love Deadlands, and want to support them. Go and buy their books.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.